The Victorians era had its share of Russell Brands
The Victorian age was stuffed with eccentrics touting counter-cultural creeds, says Patrick West
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave MacMillan, £20
The Victorians were prudish in their morals, solemn in their temper and adherents to order, progress, Church and Empire. Or so the caricature goes – the one created in the 1920s that persists to this day. Popular wisdom still has it that they were a stuffy lot and the word “Victorian” continues to be pejorative shorthand for dusty and sclerotic.
The 19th century was, however, also an era of great turmoil. Most of us know about the rise of the conventional popular ideologies of democracy, nationalism, imperialism and socialism, but this was also a time for more fevered counter-cultural creeds. Communism, anarchism, feminism, the occult, environmentalism, exoticism and mysticism: all jockeyed to capture the imagination of those who sought not to improve the world but to re-imagine it.
Structured in a series of mini-biographies, Victoria’s Madmen seeks to illustrate “the imagination of a generation bored with inertia and complacency”. It features familiar figures as Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and Arthur Conan Doyle, alongside lesser-known characters such as the painter-madman Richard Dadd, the occultist Aleister Crowley, aspiring messiah James Jezreeel, the worshippers of Pan and the Latvian anarchists of London’s East End. The book is a cross between a Daily Telegraph book of obituaries and the Fortean Times.
What’s so striking here is how Victorian society, particularly at its dawn and tail end, resembles our own. We live in a time of deep introspection, one consumed with identity politics, “personal goals“, “self-esteem”, the number of “likes” and “retweets” on social media and the Selfie. We are reminded that the early-19th century was also a period for self-reflection, if not sheer self-obsession. The Enlightenment had promoted the autonomy of the individual through reason. But after Napoleon, this begat the narcissism of the Romantic era, the “disease of self-expression, individualism” so exalted by the poets. This spirit led Coleridge to oblivion. “I was heart-sick and almost stomach-sick of speaking, writing, and thinking about myself.” he lamented in 1804, describing his descent into opium addiction. The Marquis de Sade was another consequence of the “Byronic personality which … had unwittingly discovered the path to hell alongside the path to heaven.”
While we associate the mid-Victorian period with scientific and industrial progress – Darwin and Brunel – “the last two decades of the 19th century was both a period of intense complacency and intense doubt.” There was a feeling that the price of industrialisation had been man’s soul. The “back to the land” movement of the 1880s was one consequence. In his book Merrie England (1893), Robert Blatchford imagined a return to primitive socialist values. He wanted to “restrict our mines, furnaces and chemical works … stop the smoke nuisance … Then I would set men to work to grow wheat and fruit and to rear cattle and poultry for our own use”. He was kind of Victorian George Monbiot.
The late 19th-century and Edwardian era of nostalgia and escapism gave life to the folk music movement (with its Morris Dancers), the cult of Pan, paganism, nudism, occultism, Futurism and Imagism.
It was the paradoxical time of Jekyll and Hyde, when even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that arch-sceptic and rationalist, could be an ardent Spiritualist. It was a time of country house decadence, champagne and drug addiction. Rather than being an age of calm and progress, the late Victorian era was one deeply uneasy with itself. Society, wrote G K Chesterton, was “plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide”. People were turning inwards, regressing. “Pan represented to many late Victorians and Edwardians a dream of social escape and personal release, expressed sometimes as a return to magical thinking and sometimes as a rush towards sexual excess and free love,” writes Bloom. Like Russell Brand, Victoria’s madmen believed society needed a spiritual revolution and, more portentously, that it was decadent and in need of cleansing.
With its centenary approaching, much has been written recently about the First World War, whether it was just and who was to blame for it. Revisionists are keen to question the consensus established in the 1960s that it was a futile war of lions led by donkeys. Historians such as Max Hastings maintain that imperial Germany was itching for a fight. The truth, as Victoria’s Madmen reminds us, is that by 1914, there was a widespread belief in Europe that “the old world must be blown up to be born anew”. Everyone in 1914 was eager for conflict. “We wish to glorify War,” the first Futurist manifesto proclaimed, “the only health-giver of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful Ideas that kill”. The Irish poet revolutionary Patrick Pearse believed “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”, while according to Bloom, Gerard Manley Hopkins believed that “to die young and beautiful was better than to die old and decayed”.